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Perhaps no one embodies the spirit of entrepreneurship more than Joshua Anton (McIntire ’14).
Back when he was still attending Northern Virginia Community College, he made the decision to become an entrepreneur and launched a string of businesses while setting his sights on getting into the Comm School. Once admitted into the School, the Marketing and IT concentrator combined what he was learning with remarkable vision and timeliness. He launched nightlife safety app Drunk Mode, which enjoyed an incredible surge of popularity, attracting over 1.5 million users in 18 months.
Building on that success, Anton continued to expand his business portfolio with new ventures like the location platform X-Mode, of which he serves as CEO, as well as investing heavily in startup marketing agency Trend Pie and launching wisecracking exercise motivation app Walk Against Humanity.
We recently caught up with Anton, who returned to Charlottesville to speak about predictive tech and managing explosive growth at the Tom Tom Founders Festival in April. We asked him about his entrepreneurial ventures, academic experiences, and how his McIntire professors were an integral part of his professional accomplishments.
What was the greatest challenge you faced regarding your apps’ sudden success?
The greatest success and failure was the success. Each time we went viral, it was always a challenge keeping up with the growth we had during the 18-month period between 2014 and 2016. We grew from 10,000 installs to 2 million.
As we first began to scale from 250,000 to 2 million installs, we faced two issues: First, we relied on someone else’s technology stack for our location technology, so it took us almost a year to raise money because we set the valuation a bit higher than we should have. Second, we didn’t invest in UX [user experience] and focus on how to retain people on our apps early enough, meaning that even as we got such explosive growth, we still struggled to retain users.
If I were to do it all over again, I would have invested in a technology team earlier on, raised more capital at a lesser valuation, and invested in our own technology and UX, rather than relying on someone else. Businesses like Drunk Mode/X-Mode should never outsource core capabilities, because if you do, you may not have a business when you are done.
Your X-Mode’s developer kit has given many publishers a way to monetize location-based features of the apps they’ve launched. There’s been plenty of talk about disruption and its effect on whole industries, but from your standpoint, how reliant are your achievements on the achievements of others in the field of mobile technology?
It’s hard to compare companies’ achievements because there are so many nuances as to how they arrived at their success. However, convenience and commitment stand out more than any other factors in a startup’s success, as it can be measured by the intersection of the two. Some companies do well because they had the right market timing, people, capital, and resources to succeed; others are so committed that they don’t give up, even in the face of defeat.
You can’t control convenience or market timing, but you can control commitment or hustle. The folks who stick it out in times of adversity will still disrupt an industry with the odds against them because they’re willing to bet everything.
In reference to mobile technology disruption, for X-Mode, it was really focusing on solving a niche $20-million to $50-million problem in the hopes that it would lead to a much bigger business, as we are starting to see today. Customer discovery really helped with this.
Finally, for X-Mode, it was the pure survival of not giving up even when we realized that Drunk Mode may not be what gets us over the finish line and having the courage to pivot the company even when that may be scarier than doing what you know.
Your educational background—a McIntire grad with concentrations in Marketing and IT—sounds like it falls perfectly in line with your work history. How did the Comm School prepare you for where you are today?
Certain classes were influential in preparing me to build X-Mode over the last four years. The first was Professor Lucien Bass’s “Negotiating for Value” class, which has been instrumental in fundraising, sales, and even building my team. I learned how to leverage his frameworks to ensure that both parties are happy at the end of a negotiation while maximizing value for X-Mode. The class was also one of the only two A+s that I ever got in McIntire.
Professor Natasha Foutz’s ICE marketing classes and “Entertainment Marketing”—teaching everything from understanding consumer psychology to STP [segmentation, targeting and positioning] maps—turned out to be very useful in what I do today. You can’t replace these core academic frameworks with experience. They cut my learning curve by years.
Everything I know about customer discovery I learned in Professor Eric Martin’s “Entrepreneurship” class. Drunk Mode would not exist without his course, which was also where I decided to work on my startup after college.
With a company of more than 35 people, I use Professor Gary Ballinger’s organization behavior coursework to this day: From MacLellan’s Needs Analysis to understanding how an organization works and how to leverage people’s motivations to encourage them to work harder while being happier.
Finally, Professor Thomas Package’s “Business Ethics” is a must-take for anyone going into the business world, because you will encounter many complex situations with no right or wrong answer. It’s imperative that you know how to critically analyze ethical dilemmas and how you can defend your choices.
You return to Grounds to speak to students at events like McIntire’s Careers in Marketing Forum last October. Why is it important to you to stay engaged and give back to the School?
When I was at UVA, HackCville was just becoming a thing. There was no Works in Progress [a UVA entrepreneurship program that serves as a universal connector for students who see commercial potential for their work but are unsure how to keep moving forward], and going into startups was as niche as chess club was at a typical high school. I decided to go into entrepreneurship to motivate my peers to take the risk and build their ideas and projects.
I was a kid who was kicked out of his house, paid his way through community college, and then declined lucrative job offers after graduating from UVA—even though I never made more than $15,000 a year. My point to students is that I still took the risk, and I want them to think, “If this kid can do it, why can’t I?” I want to empower my peers to take the leap to try to build something great and make their career dreams come true.